going beyond the surface of meaningful experience design
Hospitality & tourism experience leaders around the world are waking up to the idea that they can intentionally design moments of wellbeing and transformation for their guests. With this awareness, though, comes questions: What are guests really expecting from their adventures? What sort of impact can we really create? What are the many layers of the visitor journey and how do we influence and shape it with our brand & cultural narrative in mind?
These are the questions we sought out to answer with this journey map, which walks through the visitor experience from discovery to the return home. Many elements of behavioral psychology, somatic wellbeing, neuroscience, storytelling, and positive design come together here. Understanding the journey from these different angles creates a more holistic picture of travel's true power.
"There must be something more than this"
A high percentage of travelers fall in the experiential, experimental, and existential tourism modes where they are traveling because they believe ‘there must be something more than this’. Their ordinary life lacks richness and they are seeking meaning through exploring the way of life of others. Many of these are travelers making an effort to rediscover themselves through immersion into other cultures.
We see these experiential travelers gravitating towards cross-cultural stories that promise this ‘something more’. Stories have the power to expand our awareness, perspective, and sense of possibility. They have a powerful ‘pull’ that draws travelers into a destination because travelers believe a certain destination is going to achieve something for them.
On some unconscious level we believe something along the lines of, “This destination will make me feel X. This destination will help me Y. This destination will get me closer to Z.” Every destination holds a new potential for someone, and the traveler is relying on the hospitality and tourism experiences within that destination to help them tap into that potential.
Brands make a promise of purpose through the story they tell, but it’s the journey that delivers on that promise. What is the point of your experience?
If your experience is a catalyst for growth and transformation (as all experiences have the potential to be) what is that transformation you wish your experience to bring?
The promise of hospitality has long been one of relaxation and entertainment. But these are lower value promises that lack the cultural immersion and personal growth that the majority of travelers seek out.
“How can we give people an experience that not only makes them feel good, but also supports them in pursuit of their aspirations?” This is the question experience leaders must be asking in order to stay relevant in today’s travel world and to begin to uncover their deeper purpose. And this is where the journey really begins.
It begins with the awareness on both sides: the guest is aware that it’s time for an adventure, the host is aware that they are making an experience promise through their marketing & communication efforts. With words, stories, imagery, and symbols, you are saying to prospective guests: this is a place you can __________________. So, what is your experience promising?
Some of the most powerful purpose-driven promises are ones that address deep underlying emotional obstacles in people’s lives. For example, can you picture a fun & creative experience that gives people permission to release their perfectionistic tendencies? Or what if an experience’s sole purpose was to help people embrace their vulnerability so that they can connect deeper with people? Or what if your experience’s purpose was to help people get out of their heads and find their flow?
These might seem like intense puzzles to tackle, but keep in mind that what we learn is transferable – this is why multifaceted experiences that show us ways of being are the most powerful. Learning a certain activity is one thing, learning a way of being through an activity is another. Since we are the heroes of our own journey, we often remember how an experience made us feel (empowered, creative, curious, courageous…) and that’s why we focus on shaping an experience’s purpose around this.
"Is this a place I can explore freely?"
Something magical happens when you enter a different destination. A change of scenery wakes up your brain and takes it off autopilot, requiring you to pay attention to your surroundings. New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain. In every moment, we use all of our senses to gauge the safety (defensive orienting) and pleasure (exploratory orienting) within our environment.
This process of orienting actually brings our stress response down. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system so that we can bring ourselves into the present moment and not get stuck in worry or fear. It’s a biological necessity to thrive in this world.
And yet, most people in our industry, an industry that revolves around environmental exploration, don’t know about this. And unfortunately, in today’s chaotic world, many people’s ability to orient has been compromised. Which means they are entering into new experiences literally dis-oriented.
This is why it’s so important that the beginning of the journey sets the stage for safe integration into a new place. Exploratory orienting, novelty, discovery, and curiosity are closely linked and help us shift out of fearful shutdown or hypervigilant states. Uplifting curiosities, calming tactile or olfactory touchpoints, glimmers, and inspiring cultural symbols are all ways to create a comfort zone to welcome visitors in.
Why is safety the #1 most important aspect of the journey? Because your visitors are carrying their emotional baggage with them into this new experience. Their fears, limiting beliefs, and nervous system dysregulation doesn’t disappear the moment they step into a new destination.
Safety isn’t limited to our physical fears – oftentimes we feel most unsafe when there is no physical threat at all. It’s the emotional threats that are most pervasive and disorienting in today’s world. Something as “harmless” as a judgmental look from someone can often trigger a feeling of unsafeness.
Our internal environment is equally important as our external environment. Ongoing emotional experiences that threaten our safety are like a thousand paper cuts, one cut is no big deal, but it becomes excruciating when it’s one cut of many.
You can be out in one of the most beautiful, peaceful places in the world, but if you’re sitting there worrying about something that was said or done earlier that didn’t feel good, you’re not going to reap the benefits of the nature exposures.
The good news is, just as continuous exposure to chaotic environments negatively shapes our behavior, exposure to peaceful and restorative environments, can positively shape our behavior.
But safety & openness are key. When our brain wakes up and we shift out of autopilot and future tripping mode (our typical modus operandi) we then shift into a more conscious and receptive processing state.
With this awareness of how our brains & bodies interact with the environment, we can begin to explore: What environmental cues are going to tell guests to feel safe, relaxed, joyful? What sensory stimulation is going to help people shift into a more deliberate & receptive learning mode? In what ways are the sensorial surroundings teaching and empowering our visitors?
So many brands these days take a minimalist approach to placemaking. While there’s nothing wrong with creating a serene, uncluttered environment, studies show that we need more to respond to in our environment in order for us to thrive – this is known as environmental enrichment.
During this phase of the visitor journey, we want encourage grounded, slow behavior, orienting, and begin planting seeds that align with your purposeful promise. If we blow past this part of the journey, we are setting visitors up for failure. Help them check as much of their emotional baggage at the door as they can so they can actually relax and access greater levels of curiosity and pleasure when the heart of the journey begins.
We can define immersion by exploring the opposite of immersion: surface level. This is the problem with tourism today. Travelers spend a moment in one place just to take photos and not to engage with the local culture. When experiences are surface level, they rarely impact us on an emotional, meaningful level.
"Who am I when I'm here?"
If we believe that people travel in search of something more, then it’s up to our industry to create experiences that completely submerge people into another world, an alternative reality to their mundane everyday existence.
This is the power that lies in stories – their ability to ignite emotional energy and stretch people’s minds. Telling stories is an act of expansion and activates our imaginative capabilities. Stories crack us open to seeing new possibilities beyond logic and our own past experiences.
We love stories for their escapism quality, and yet, escapism is often painted as a ‘bad’ thing. But to be removed from an undesirable situation is often exactly what we need when we’re feeling stuck and in a spin cycle of survival. And if escape leads to positive momentum and change, then it is an important part of transformation.
In this part of the journey we look to neuroplasticity - the brain’s natural capacity to rewire itself in response to learning and new experiences that expose us to different thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Slowly but surely, with every moment of connection & absorption, every challenge, every time we stretch a little outside of our comfort zone, we are growing. Through discovery, play, flow, and imagination, we can build towards peak experiences and defining moments that deeply impact the guest.
What does that impact look like? Neuroplasticity tells us we may not walk away from a trip a completely different person with new habits and behaviors, but that a truly meaningful journey can be the *spark* to ignite change. Just like in our favorite stories, the pinnacle moment brings about some sort of perspective shift or change in behavior.
But here’s an important caveat: It’s not about leaping right into peak moments, going from 0-100mph in a minute. it’s essential to build to them and slowly stretch visitors’ awareness and capacity for change. You don’t throw someone who doesn’t know how to swim into the deep end. Because anytime an experience begins to make someone feel confused, controlled, judged, pressured to perform/please, unheard, powerless, confronted, chaotic, and so on… they are more likely to enter into a mode where transformation is very difficult to achieve.
In fact, our ability to experience flow (what some say is the secret to happiness) and transformation is compromised if we are stuck in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. When you live in a society that is constantly turned on and tuned in, GO GO GO, DO DO DO, being stuck in one of these states is incredibly common. Everything we see here in this part of the journey – flow, connection, expansion – it requires guests feel safe. Which is why phase two of the journey is imperative.
What does this experience bring out in the guest when they’re here? Who are they becoming when they’re immersed into this experience? What feelings, behaviors, beliefs & attitudes are you delivering that people are walking away saying “I want more of that in my life”?
These are the questions we must be asking. It's not simply about entertaining guests, but designing moment that challenge them to change the way they react, think, and behave. This way, when they return home, they can integrate these optimal ways of being into their daily life, from the way they eat, drink, sleep, work, learn, to the way they interact and make important daily decisions.
integrate & embody
"What am I taking home with me?"
This isn't about souvenirs and mementos... although they do play a role here. The valuable things we take home are really the new passions, hobbies, rituals, but most importantly - ways of being.
We enter into an experience one way, and the hope is that we leave it as who we aspire to be. But just because we experienced a change in behavior once, doesn’t mean we are changed forever. The brain learns what is repeated. Choosing alternative paths is a constant, conscious effort.
A purpose-driven adventure can be the catalyst for real change in peoples’ lives, but it’s up to visitors to keep up the positive momentum after they return home. There are many obstacles to transformation – too many to get into here. But fear and limiting beliefs alone can block people from making changes when they get back to “reality”.
At the core of rewiring behaviors is reflection, an important pillar of cognitive behavior therapy. Intentional awareness of one’s efforts, desires, and accomplishments can help build new links in the brain and lead to the transformation we are all seeking. With a thoughtful and intentional send-off, you can encourage this behavior before a visitor returns home.
Getting visitors to acknowledge their desires and new behaviors can be a big step forward in itself. What new things did they learn that they can adopt to replace undesirable habits? What can they bring home with them to remind them of their commitment?
This brings us back to what we covered in the Enriched Environment part of the journey. Studies have found that what people see/sense in their physical environment can play a major role in their behavior, personality development, and wellbeing. Choice architecture, some might call it.
We are byproducts of our environment. They have the power to keep us stuck in old patterns, or inspire us to make change.
So if people can bring/ship home mementos and symbolic keepsakes from their trip that they can keep in their home or office to remind them of their transformation, that’s powerful.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways you can help guests integrate their experience in meaningful ways into their everyday life. But it is an important step that travel & hospitality hosts rarely put effort into.
After visitors leave, it might seem like there isn’t much for you to do here at this point, but you can always continue to support guests through online experiences and storytelling. An online magazine that explores your culture’s lifestyle, for example. Posts on social media that serve as reminders of their accomplishments and growth.